What is a ziggurat? Mesopotamian architecture

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Remains of the ziggurat at Warka, in Iraq, 3000 BC

Remains of the ziggurat at Warka, in Iraq, 3000 BC (before it was reconstructed)

Like the Egyptians at the same time, the Sumerians and Iranians around 3000-2500 BC devoted a lot of energy to building big buildings. But unlike the Pyramids, which are tombs for dead Pharaohs, the Sumerian and Iranian ziggurats (ZIG-oo-rats) are temples for their gods.

Because good building stone is hard to find in the river valley of the Euphrates River where the Sumerians lived, the Sumerians mostly did not build in stone. Instead, they built their ziggurats (and also their houses and city walls) out of mud-brick, or adobe.

The ziggurat at Warka (reconstructed by Saddam Hussein)

The ziggurat at Warka (reconstructed by Saddam Hussein)

Ziggurats are very high buildings. You start by making a big flat platform of mud-brick, and then you make a slightly smaller platform on top of the first one, and another on top of that, until the platform is just a little bigger than a temple, and then you build the temple at the very top, like a sand-castle. Maybe Mesopotamian people thought it was better to pray to the gods from as close as possible, and so if the gods lived up in the sky you had to build great platforms to get near them.

Of course it isn’t very hard to build a very impressive building this way: it is solid all the way through, like a sand-castle, so it is easy to get it to stay up.

The Jews thought it was a very bad idea to try to reach all the way up to God like that, and their hatred of the ziggurats is reflected in the story of the Tower of Babel.

The Sumerians and their descendants continued to build ziggurats well into the Middle Bronze Age (the Third Dynasty of Ur), around 2000 BC, long after the Egyptians had stopped building pyramids.

Learn by doing: build a big sand-castle with smaller levels stacked on top of bigger ones.
Egyptian pyramids
Norte Chico
Mayan pyramids
Incan pyramids

Bibliography and further reading about ziggurats:


The Sumerians, by Elaine Landau (1997). Easy reading. Despite the bad Amazon rating, this is a good solid introduction to the Sumerians, with an explanation of prehistory at the beginning for context. Pictures of ancient stuff, and good maps.

The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, by Henri Frankfort (5th edition 1997). The standard for college art history classes.

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By | 2017-09-11T17:36:36+00:00 September 11th, 2017|Architecture, West Asia|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is a ziggurat? Mesopotamian architecture. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 11, 2017. Web. November 24, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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